Author explores two visions of the West by two very different men
Book review: "All the Wild that Remains" by David Gessner (W.W. Norton & Co.)
In this rich book, David Gessner explores the portrayals of the West by two extraordinary men "who have left their (very large) footprints all over the western landscape," Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. On the surface, these two men seem diametrically opposed in nature, the proper and "buttoned-down" Stegner, and the archetypal wild man, Abbey.
Abbey, who found monogamy "boring," had five wives, seems opposite of Stegner, who married early and stayed married to the same woman for 60 years. Yet these two men were united in their absolute love of the western landscape and their dedication to its preservation, albeit in very different ways.
If Thoreau had one regret, his "good behavior," Edward Abbey had little to regret in this regard. "We need wilderness because we are wild animals," Gessner quotes Abbey as saying. And Abbey lives up to that characteristic, as we all know, with his call-to- arms on monkey-wrenching and "screw-you freedom," as Gessner calls it. At the University of New Mexico, as editor of the literary magazine, he posts on the cover Diderots famous saying, "Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" - and attributes it to Louisa May Alcott. Abbey does not believe proper behavior is necessary to be moral and he revels in the morality of impropriety in myriad forms.
Wallace Stegner's love for the wild land of the West, while nowhere near as colorful and dramatic as Abbey's, is every bit as much as all-encompassing and important to his life's work. Yet Stegner's work has more compassion and understanding of the human community, with all its flaws, in relation to the wild land that is its home. Yes, Gessner admits, we are all hungry for wilderness, "the laboratory of our creation," but "there is no wild life without a moral life." He admits he loves the "idea" of Abbey, but it is Stegner who offers a salvation he can live with - which involves getting out into whatever is left of that wilderness.
- Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator